8/22/2013 - Art isn’t just skin-deep at the Top Shelf Tattoo Gallery.
At Manchester’s newest place to get inked, it’s hanging above the doorway, dominating the front desk, plastered over the walls and, usually on Friday nights, heard through music, comedy or poetry.
As the staff explains, the aim is to make Top Shelf more than a tattoo parlor — indeed, “parlor,” they say, sounds too stuffy, anyway. They want it to be a vehicle for creativity.
Inviting artists to perform or display art here, then, seems natural, owner Jef Lessard said in an interview at the shop last week. Especially since the space is there. Why not use it?
“I’ve always had the idea of a tattoo shop with this sort of a scenario,” Lessard said. “It’s sort of an added bonus that there’s a stage here, too.”
Yes, there is a stage (and even a drum set) right next to the large front windows that look over Elm Street. The floors are tiled with black and white checkers and the walls showcase art by tattoo artists, NHIA students and a few of Lessard’s friends. Artistic subjects vary: the flesh-eating zombies, tarnished road bike and black and white mandala drawings are framed neatly throughout the space, while the lightning-struck, fire-breathing dragon mural is painted on the side wall.
There’s also room for a front desk, a conference table and a line of rooms for the tattoo artists to work in. (At the very end of the space, there’s even enough room for a tiny studio. Lessard’s daughter, Jacklyn, “works here.” She’s 4 and loves to draw.)
Needless to say, it’s not typically what you’d expect of a tattoo parlor, but that’s the point.
Lessard, who has worked as a tattoo artist in Salem, Nashua, Manchester and Laconia, has been talking and thinking about opening his own shop for a while. The space he’s in had been empty for years, though long-time Manchester residents may remember when it was home to Relax Records.
Here, art is king over everything else.
“Art comes first, money comes last, and in between is having a good time doing what you love,” Lessard said.
He hired Top Shelf artists — Andy Ellis (Manchester’s first licensed tattoo artist), Christian Juarez, NHIA student Kait Edwards and apprentice artist Ryan Lee (visit topshelftattoogallery.com for artist bios) — for their clean lines and good personalities, but he encourages them and others to go beyond skin and ink.
“I’ve been drawing since I was big enough to draw on my parents’ walls,” Lessard said. “I’ve never been one for the 9 to 5. I love to create things, whether it be canvas, skin, wood, metal, a sandcastle with my daughter.”
He said his biggest honor is meeting somebody who wants your art etched in his skin forever.
He wants Top Shelf to be part of a growing art scene in Manchester.
“I want to make it a place where you can go not just to get a tattoo, but where you can hang out and appreciate some poetry, some artwork. … Ninety percent of the people who walk in say they didn’t know a tattoo shop could look like this. … I think that’s what sets us apart,” he said.